It is a natural instinct to try to hide our flaws and brag about our merits instead. So often we find ourselves covering up our disgraceful characteristics. Indeed, who would want to wash his dirty linen in public?
Koreans, as a group-oriented people, are particularly reluctant to reveal their blemishes to foreigners. Thus we try very hard to hide our dark sides from foreign people, hoping to look impeccable and admirable. Years ago, for example, our dictatorial politicians enacted a law that prohibited us from criticizing our political system in front of foreigners. Even today, people look askance and frown at those who speak ill of their country to foreigners, condemning them as if they were national traitors.
Recently, an expatriate in Korea, who was obviously intrigued by the so-called "love motels" in Korea, contributed a photo essay to a recent issue of "Gwangju News," an English magazine published by the Gwangju International Center. Under the title, "Love Motel Facades in Gwangju," were eight panoramic photos of love motels in Gwangju with short poetic captions attached. Nothing seemed wrong with it. Some of the captions include: "Like beauty pageant contestants, love motels decked out in exotic attire vie for attention along the Gwanjucheon waterfront"; "The Love motel is a traveler`s destination, a foreign country itself. The Windmill Motel is reminiscent of the idyllic Dutch countryside, and of the famous Parisian cabaret Moulin Rouge."
As soon as the magazine came out, however, our newspapers immediately began attacking the magazine, which soon enflamed the fury of readers who felt their pride was seriously damaged. Our newspaper reports wrote: "This photo essay introduces ungrounded rumors by stating `love motels are also a rendezvous point for extramarital affairs.`" But is it not true that love motels are a favorite place for those who are having an affair? Korean reporters also criticized the opening remarks, which began: "In Gwangju, the neon lights of a love motel are never far from view. Young couples use love motels to enjoy a romantic night away from parental scrutiny." But is that not true as well?
Nowhere in the caption was a critique of love motels, and yet it did not mitigate the Korean readers` embarrassment. Reading the photo essay, many Koreans undoubtedly became discomfited and even furious with the fact that a side of Korean society that they wanted to hide from foreigners had been exposed by a foreigner and printed in a widely circulating English magazine. "The magazine should have declined such an embarrassing photo essay," wrote one reporter, "It will surely ruin our image." That was why people`s anger was aimed at the people responsible for the magazine, and at City Hall, which subsidized the magazine but not at the writer herself.
Nevertheless, we should be aware that in this age of information technology, it is no longer possible to hide. These days, no matter how hard we may try to conceal something, news flies fast and spreads instantly all over the world. Former President Roh Moo-hyun`s scandal that currently sweeps Korea, for example, has already been televised in every part of the world. We cannot possibly hide anything anymore from the watchful eyes of the world.
Also, we should admit that our society, like any other, has an undesirable, negative downside. For example, how can we deny the existence of the love motels that are so common in our country? Why do we want to desperately hide something that foreigners are already well-aware of? How come we think that we must only show foreigners the bright side of Korea? It would be deceitful if we pretended there were no such things as love motels or other undesirable things in Korea. Both Korean culture and Korean society are far from immaculate and flawless. It is the same in other countries. We are only human, after all.
Instead of pretending that there are no love motels or reacting so sensitively to foreign criticism, we should instead try to build a society where no love motels are in business. When our society cultivates a high standard of ethics and a social atmosphere that properly restrains unbridled sexual dissipation, love motels will eventually go out of business. Meanwhile, we may get some comfort from the fact that young couples and people having affairs sneak into motels to spend brief but intense moments in other countries as well.
Therefore, we really need to have the capacity to boldly show our dark side to foreigners and generously embrace criticisms from them. It would be childish if we wanted only praise and compliments. We should be open-minded and able to laugh about foreigners` insightful observations into our culture and society. When our unchecked emotional response is unleashed, the outcome is almost always to our detriment. We should not try to hide things from foreigners; they know about our flaws and weaknesses more than we think they do. What are we trying to hide anyway?
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and director of the Seoul National University Press. - Ed.